“Air ring!” Kio bellowed at the top of his lungs.
“What?” Karla shouted back.
Kio rubbed his face, leaving a glowing trail along the path of his tattoo, and crossed his shining arms over his head.
Oh. Karla recognized the signal. Bearing.
She wiped rain-slicked hair out of her eyes with her elbow and tried to figure out what to point the compass at. She’d hooked the pulley into the loop of her utility belt, which gave her two free hands: one to aim the compass, and one to desperately try to keep the jury-rigged piece of garbage from falling apart. Kio filled his pockets with lodestone at every sky kingdom they encountered, so finding a magnet was easy, and it hadn’t been hard for Karla to rub it on a needle, stick the needle in a cork, and float it in a mug full of water.
It had all been in the books. There were even pictures. What the words and pictures didn’t explain was how to hold on to the compass while hanging by one’s belt fifty paces down from a balcony, tilting the cup to keep the cork from sloshing out as rain overflowed the rim, and straining to decide which part of the identical sheet of rain one should direct one’s blinded friend toward.
Oh, not to mention covered in moss. Like much of Karla’s life, those were all things only experience could teach.
She’d picked out a gnarled cumulonimbus cloud to be the heart of the storm, the area with the most rain to fill their reservoir. But the cloud twisted in on itself. Karla lost sight of it, time and again, until she was giving Kio his bearings more or less at random.
Screw it. Consistency mattered more than accuracy here. Consistency, and staying in this thunderstorm for as long as possible, against all notions of comfort and common sense. “Zero-three-zero!”
She counted the numbers on her fingers instead. Kio raised one arm to show that he’d heard, keeping the other firmly clamped on Nashido’s enormous wooden helm. Her friend had coated his clothes in glowmoss harvested directly off the castle walls, making his outline shimmer in the atrocious visibility of the rain-washed night. At his insistence, she’d done the same. Normally, on a night like this, they’d be huddled together in one of the closed chambers. When they had to venture out in heavy weather, it helped to be able to quickly check whether the other was alive and unhurt.
Kio touched the helm left. Instantly, Nashido’s bulk began to turn. The flying castle handled like a glacier. Each adjustment wobbled the compass but felt so minor to Karla that it might not have happened at all. The great propellor changed its angle, the wind on her face shifted, but the only other thing she felt was a slight weight on her bracing leg. She supposed it didn’t help that she had no landmark in this sky–just roiling thunderheads and curtains of driving rain. Only Nashido stayed still, the eye of whatever storm it entered.
Karla paced backward to get her vantage point to the right. The pinhole of sky visible under the web of stairs and bridges sticking aft over the machine deck showed her it was just as rainy on that side. She raised three fists to Kio for three zeroes, right on course to stay in the storm.
Mara, she swore, this had better be filling the reservoir.
Kio acknowledged her information with another question: a closed fist pounding like it was swinging a hammer. He wanted to know how much time had passed since the last thunderclap. She stamped on the tower, swinging back and forth a little. She’d gotten so absorbed in keeping them on course she’d been forgetting to count.
She’d guess. It hadn’t been long. She flashed five fingers, then two more rapidly, for the count of seven.
Almost on cue, the world blinked white. Karla looked wildly for the bolt but came up empty. She counted, starting at two to account for the moment spent stunned.
Thunder roared on three. Damn. I way overshot. She sent the information back to Kio.
He used two ropes to lash the wheel in place and reached for a pair of chains, one at each hand. In spite of how uncomfortable she was, and how much she wished the oil on her outer furs was keeping the rain off better, Karla had to smile.
They were getting to the good part.
The battery that powered the propellor was a huge Rokhshan dinosaur she’d despaired of ever making more efficient. All they had to charge it with was lightning, and lightning never charged it much. To steer Nashido, she and Kio had to build a chain of lightning bolts, crawling their way from one strike to the next like climbing a rope hand over hand.
She’d skipped out on a day of aqueduct repair, cannibalized the system’s pulleys and metal rebar, lashed them to the old lightning rods with fasteners so unsatisfactory that her stomach siezed at every strange popping sound. All so Kio could pull off the recharge while she was stuck up here spotting for him.
Another lightning bolt. The helm strained against its lashings but held. Karla counted to three. The thunderclap struck at two and a half.
She started another count. This time, there was a bolt–a many-forked tail spreading out like a map between the kingdoms of the sky. Every river, every road, living for a brief instant.
And Kio needed to capture it all. The compass had stopped sloshing. The rain was getting away from them.
Kio didn’t wait any longer. Amid the cannon-shot of the next thunderclap, he jerked hard on both the chains in his hands. The lightning rods, lighter than they looked, swung up.
Karla spun on her rope to watch. Kio wrapped the chains around cleats on the machine deck and ran back to the helm.
When the lightning came next, it made a mad dash for them both, a blast milliseconds long. Just enough time for Karla to push off the wall and scream over its thunder, for Kio to point Nashido back toward the center of the storm.
Blasting sparks galloped down the poles, hissing with steam whenever the raindrops spattered them. The battery drank down the captive bolt. Seconds later, the propellor shuddered to life, pressing the castle back through the curtain of rain.
Twelve hours later, curled up in the dry haven of the library, Kio was still damp. He felt sure he’d be damp forever, that the droplets dripping off his hair were as much a part of him now as his teeth. Every time he felt one brewing, he had to shove his chair back to keep the pages from getting damp. That sort of thing could scar a book forever.
He drew his furs tighter around him and shivered. Even though he’d spent most of his past three days in the library, he’d been living in his heavy coats the whole time. He tended to anyway unless Karla threw a bundle at him and gave him one hour to change and launder or she’d lock him in the hangar with a bucket and no food.
The library was warm. Part of what they called the outer citadel, the network of enclosed rooms sprouting from the middle sphere, it jutted out from the upper-forward hemisphere of Nashido–“forward” defined by being opposite the propellors at “aft.” Five arches as high as a blue whale’s ribcage made up the frame, braced in the middle by keystones carved with compass roses, and filled out by more of the ubiquitious tan stones that fit perfectly together without concrete. Tapestries covered most of these, keeping out the chill with more tales of Rokhshan heroes so old all the books spoke about them like they were from another world. The books themselves crowded next to scrolls and loose prints on shelves spanning the middle of the room, parallel with the arches. Openings in the shelves allowed Kio to pass through to the desk against the glass window.
The glass was a mystery that interested Karla more than anything in the books. They hadn’t seen glass in any of the sky kingdoms, so she was sure the lords must have bought it from the surface. But how did they get it up to Nashido? Did it mean the surface people had the technology to reach the castle, not to mention make glass? Or did it mean it really was possible to reach the ground with the tools available in the sky?
Like most things, it sent her back to working on Raven. But not before she’d planted glowmoss on all the braces where the gaslights used to be, where sun from the window could charge them.
So everything was bright. Everything was warm, which made the shivering strange, and eveything was impressive. All of this must have been, in the days of Kio’s Rokhshan ancestors, and it still was, though in a different way–the way sprawling ruins slept pregnant with the promise that every column had seen wonderful and terrible things.
Yes, Kio knew ruins. He’d even seen more than one. He couldn’t say that about too many things.
And shivering wasn’t strange to him. He had very good reason to be feeling chilled. The books in front of him were all about sky kingdom runes. Their “tech” as Karla called it. Not one of them mentioned anything about the sigils being able to decay. Or, for that matter, working when they were as large as the ones he’d seen.
Kio spun around, realized too late he should hide the books, knocked several of them off the table, and tried to play it off as a function of the spinning. Karla gave him a look like he was plucking a seagull with a spanner. She was holding two mugs of mismatched design, both full of water.
“From our refilled reservoir.” She handed him the bigger flagon. “Drink up. If you’re not too busy breaking book spines.”
She giggled as he leapt to save the books that had fallen open on the floor, knocking the chair over in the process. When he straightened up, stacking the books so their covers and spines were invisible, his water was resting on an empty space in the clutter covering the desk.
He took a long sip from the tankard. He hadn’t realized how parched he was. The water was cool and sweet–pure high-sky rain without a hint of dirt or salt. It tasted a little like the ceramics of the basin, but he could hardly complain about that.
“So we filled the reservoir?”
“To the brim.” Karla looked past him–mercifully, away from the books–to the layer of broad white clouds they were drifting over. “We flew through enough damn thunderstorms last night. I was damp in my dreams. The low funnel I rigged up caught plenty of water, but I had to take it down. The ropes were fraying.”
She swung back to face him, eyes narrowing. “Which you’d know, if you hadn’t run right here the moment we were finished. What’s so important, Kio?”
With a stab, Kio wondered how keeping a secret from her had managed to become habit. Even if he could hide anything, why would he? Why wait until he had a solution before telling his best friend the problem?
If you tell her, said a nagging voice, it becomes real. He opened his mouth to say everything.
“I’m reading up on bone dragons.” He gestured to the pile of books behind him. “There aren’t any real descriptions of them in the flora and fauna guides. Sky kingdoms or the surface. So I’m going to history instead.”
“History?” The sun through the window lit up Karla’s face. The suspicious look hadn’t left it. “You found books on the history of bone dragons?”
“Well–no,” Kio admitted. “Sky history. I’m looking for any references to them or anything like them. What they are. Where they came from.”
“How to kill them?”
“We know that, don’t we?” Kio took another long sip from his tankard. “Water.”
Karla tapped his tankard with hers and drank too. “Without having to replace our entire supply,” she said, with a grin that released a bit of the pressure on Kio’s lungs.
But it vanished quickly. “Kio, if any more of those things are going to show up, we need a plan to deal with them. We can’t keep throwing the reservoir at everything, and our harpoons aren’t going to make a dent. Mara, I’m not even sure the one we fought is dead. Wasn’t the bit that grabbed you still flapping when it fell?”
Kio’s stomach knotted. He’d been worrying the same way. Could the bone dragon be pulling its parts together even now, rebuilding on some barnacle-encrusted rock across the ocean?
“What are you thinking?” he asked Karla.
She pushed past him. He nearly knocked over the chair again, but recovered in time–for he’d claimed the books were sky kingdom history, and they were. The only truth he hadn’t told was exactly what he was looking for in them.
Karla flipped through one book, then another, as though trying to absorb all the information at once. “The sky lords observed these things. If they ever did get aggressive, if they fought, there’s no way they wouldn’t have written about it. I almost want to, and we have nothing to write on or with. I notched the calendar for it already.”
“Maybe they fought them every day,” Kio pointed out. “So often they weren’t even worth mentioning. Do we notch the calendar every time we kill a seagull, or pick a potato?”
“If they went from docile to aggressive that fast?” Karla was already shaking her head. “We’ve been to sky kingdoms. I know they’re all different, but in any of them, did you see any weapon strong enough to take out one or two dragons a day without breaking a sweat? I didn’t.”
Kio had to admit he hadn’t either.
“So they weren’t common,” Karla continued. “They were remarkable. They’d have been reported.”
“But we don’t have all the books,” Kio said. “There could be a gap in the record.”
“Could be,” Karla echoed, not sounding convinced.
“Is that what you’re thinking, then?” he asked, suddenly feeling the chill again. “Weapons? We’ve never had weapons before.”
“We’ve never needed weapons before. What have we had to fight until now? Seagulls?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Kio told her, and neither of them had to voice what he did mean. He could tell she too had the unassailable sense that arming Nashido would be crossing a line. In one of his earliest memories, when he must have been six or seven, he recalled talking to Karla about exactly that, deciding together not to make their home into a battleship.
The unnatural cold in the library, though, made the memory feel incomplete. Standing beside him now as they pored over the books together, Karla looked up and voiced his fear. “Kio, do you remember why we decided not to add weapons?”
“No. Do you?”
“No,” she said, pulling out the hand where she’d marked a page. The book dropped shut with a cough of dust. “And I’m sick of making decisions based on stuff we can’t remember. We have one promise, fine. It’s a good promise. But I want us to be safe, and I’m not going to let any year zero stuff get in the way.”
Now Kio understood why he’d felt cold even when he’d been distracted from thinking about the decaying runes. The bone dragon–and maybe the rune issue, too–had to do with year zero stuff.
“It’s not fair,” he blurted out stupidly. Karla was already backing toward the gap in the bookshelf, but she stopped and spoke without turning around. “What’s not fair?”
Kio gulped. Since he’d been old enough to think–even before–he’d wondered if Karla knew more about how the two of them had come to be alone on Nashido than she would say. He had no evidence for it, and was angry at himself for thinking of it, but he couldn’t shake the idea.
“Using stuff we can’t remember to win arguments,” he covered for himself. “How am I supposed to fight back?”
She turned. The natural light again lit up one side of her face, one half of her half-open mouth. “Kio, we’re not having a fight. You can’t seriously believe we shouldn’t build weapons.”
He crossed the room to her, taking care not to block her from leaving, hoping dearly she would stay. “Time we spend arming ourselves is time we can’t spend getting down to the surface.”
“The first point of our time is to survive.” Karla chewed her lip. “This is survival. What if that one that attacked was a scout? What if we’re at war with a whole herd of bone dragons?”
“What if we’ve been at war all our lives with something we haven’t seen yet?” Kio countered. “We still don’t know what Castle Nashido was for. Is for.”
“It was a meeting place for ambassadors. All the books say so.”
“That required all this hardware? It could easily have been some kind of battleship. For fighting someone who thinks we’ve been at peace for who’d be offended if it started bristling with guns.”
He was reaching, and he knew it. In truth, his only argument was the same unease he and Karla had both felt as children when they had sat together to work out the “rules” of Nashido. Except since that time, Karla had become practical, while Kio had remained Kio, able to think in volumes at all times except when it would actually be useful.
“You’d better get back to the books and figure that out, then.” Karla turned once more and stalked through the bookshelf. “There’s more water if you need it. When you learn how to kill a bone dragon and understand that we want to, I’ll be in the workshop.”
“Building guns?” Benefactor! She probably already had an idea for one.
“You’re on guns!” Karla called. “I’m working on Raven!”
Well, I guess so, Kio thought as he dropped heavily back into the chair to continue ignoring bone dragons in favor of magic runes. Raven does kinda make all our other problems obsolete.
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